WASHINGTON — U.S. Rep. C.W. Bill Young knows the question is coming — it always does this time a year — and he smiles while easing into a chair outside the House gallery.
Point blank, will you seek re-election, or is this your final year? His answer, delivered with the charm and patience of a man nearing his 79th birthday, provides few clues.
"You might find this strange, but I really enjoy the campaign, and I think there are some major issues that we need to be concerned about," he says. "I feel good. I've got plenty of energy. But I recognize that I'm getting older. I've not made a final decision, and I never do until the election year."
Now in his 20th term in Congress, the Pinellas County Republican has endured a decade of such speculation. But talk on Capitol Hill is stronger than ever that Young is winding down.
He was among those considered by Gov. Charlie Crist to replace retiring U.S. Sen. Mel Martinez. But Young took himself out of contention — famously showing up to an interview in sneakers and an untucked shirt — as word spread that Crist wanted to appoint his former chief of staff, 40-year-old George LeMieux.
In February, the Pinellas County Republican Party plans to honor Young's 50th year in public office (he served a decade in the state Legislature), a tribute similar to one for retiring U.S. Rep. Mike Bilirakis in 2006.
"We're all asking these questions, let's not kid ourselves," said J.J. Beyrouti, chairman of the Pinellas GOP. "But lately, what I hear is he's not going to retire."
Beyrouti and others play down any ties between the dinner and a retirement, saying it is a natural milestone to commemorate.
"I would be surprised if he doesn't run," said Clearwater Mayor Frank Hibbard, who could seek the seat one day.
Young and his close advisers seem bemused by all the attention. "Most of the rumors of my retirement come from sources where it is wishful thinking," said Young, who is the ranking Republican on the powerful defense appropriations subcommittee.
Democrats would be in prime position to capture the seat (Barack Obama won Pinellas County in 2008), and state Sen. Charlie Justice of St. Petersburg has been actively campaigning.
Young raised less than $5,000 in the most recent quarter and gave $10,000 to the National Republican Congressional Committee, spurring Democratic hopes. However, Young said he never raises much money in the off year. His campaign account still has $419,000, three times as much as Justice.
Democrats may have helped extend Young's tenure. Two years ago, Florida party chairwoman Karen Thurman accused him of not doing more to call attention to problems at Walter Reed Army Medical Center — an attack Young called totally baseless and painful since he has devoted much of his time to military concerns. He said it helped motivate his re-election bid.
"If you want me to retire, don't be mean," Young said, flashing a smile. "Be nice to me, and maybe I'll consider retiring. But I'm not going to retire while I'm being attacked."
This week, Democrats attempted to draw Young into problems with a reservoir in east Hillsborough County that bears his name and needs more than $100 million in repairs despite being only a few years old. "The Bill Young Reservoir has become a 'money pit' already expected to cost taxpayers an additional $125 million to fix," said party spokesman Eric Jotkoff. "The people of Florida's 10th Congressional District deserve a leader in Congress who will work against government waste, not congressman Bill Young, who builds monuments to his own outsized ego."
Young, who has gotten hundreds of millions for Tampa Bay, secured the funding for the reservoir but said he never asked for it to be named for him. He said the construction company has an obligation to show it did not cause the cracks or to own up and pay for repairs.
Young interrupted an interview to go vote, returning a few minutes later. "If I leave here, I would really miss this place," he said. "I would miss the give-and-take."
Among the rumors are ones that Young's wife, Beverly, would run for the seat. But Young dismissed that. "When I do retire, I don't want to be still connected to the job."
Alex Leary can be reached at email@example.com.